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Centre for Teaching Excellence honours Jake Fisher with 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Jake Fisher.Jake Fisher, a Lab Instructor in the Department of Chemistry has been chosen as one of four recipients of this year’s Distinguished Teaching Awards by the Centre for Teaching Excellence. Honorees also include Wayne Chang (Engineering), Shannon Dea (Arts), and Julie Kate Seirlis (St. Paul’s University College). All four were recognized for their long-term excellence in teaching and lasting impact on students beyond the classroom.

“It’s a very nice honour,” says Fisher. “It’s great to know I’ve made a difference in students’ lives.”

Fisher, a laboratory and classroom instructor at Waterloo for 29 years, teaches both experimental and computational chemistry labs, including courses he developed from scratch, Chem 140: Introductory Scientific Calculations and Chem 340: Introductory Computational Chemistry.

“I have had the great pleasure to work on courses with Jake since I arrived at Waterloo, and I have been inspired by his commitment to student learning and their well-being,” says Professor Bill Power, Chair for the Department of Chemistry. “I have learned much myself from Jake, on how to help students learn challenging mathematical approaches to interpreting and understanding scientific experiments, giving them a strong foundation in analytical and critical thinking regardless of their future careers.”

Years ago Fisher noticed students had an especially hard time with writing reports for physical chemistry labs. Physical chemistry naturally involves lots of calculations and having the scientific calculation skills in Microsoft Excel reduces the preparation for the lab report enormously.

By knowing how to do numerical calculus methods and matrix algebra, you can do complicated, labour intensive calculations quickly using a basic spreadsheet program.

“I designed the course so that students can take these skills outside Chem 140 into their work term or other courses and labs,” says Fisher. “You can solve a system of linear equations with just a few keystrokes, without having to learn any computer programming.”

Fisher takes pride in bridging what students learn in theory with what they see in the lab. For example, take the particle in a box model, which he teaches in Chem 250L: Physical Chemistry Laboratory I. Fisher starts off with a simple model - too simple in fact, so that students see it doesn’t work when they compare it to their experimental data. Students then learn to fit the data as their model becomes more realistic.

“When I was starting out, chemists were separated into two camps: the theoretical chemists and the experimentalists. I was doing a bit of both, so I didn’t fit in either group at the time,” says Fisher.

Thirty years later he’s noticed a huge shift. Computers have become cheap and accessible. Experimentalists are doing more theoretical calculations and theoretical chemists are active in the lab.

“I’ve asked the class, ‘How many people can use Excel?’ And everyone raises their hand,” says Fisher. “Then I ask ‘How many people can use Excel as a tool?’ No one raises their hand because they’ve never applied this software towards solving a real problem.”

Fisher extends this patience and enthusiasm for learning also to his laboratory courses, interjecting lessons between sample runs and challenging students’ thinking one-on-one. He notes these are the best learning opportunities. Students are often too shy in bigger classes to ask questions.

“I like to get them aside in those moments,” says Fisher. “You have to be very flexible in how you teach and have the patience to get the light bulb to come on. That’s the challenge.”

Although Fisher trained with physical chemists here at Waterloo, he is largely self-taught when it comes to computers and programming.

“I often tell students it’s not the mark you get, but the skills you develop that are your reward,” says Fisher.

Dr. Fisher also teaches physical chemistry and computational chemistry, including Chem 340: Introductory Computational Chemistry; Chem 250L: Physical Chemistry Laboratory I; and 350L: Physical Chemistry Laboratory II. Chem 140 is a prerequisite for Chem 250L and is offered to chemistry students year-round.

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